Studies depict loud silence on campus ‘sex for grades’

#CampusmeToo students address the press at a Nairobi hotel in 2020. The student-led Pan-African movement campaigns against sexual harassment at universities and colleges.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The Court of Appeal in Morocco in January, jailed an economics professor at Hassan University for two years, for sexually blackmailing his female students in return for grades.
  • Evidence from Australia and USA show that power is central to the vice as perpetrators create environments conducive to private contact with students, using their age and positions.

The Court of Appeal in Morocco in January, jailed an economics professor at Hassan University for two years, for sexually blackmailing his female students in return for grades.

A number of studies confirm that this behaviour and other forms of sexual harassment are widespread.

One by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2017, established that the vice was perpetrated in institutional grounds, teaching and learning spaces and social platforms, with female students being the majority victims.

More than 80 per cent of those affected did not file a complaint with the authorities, suggesting a culture of silence around the vice.

Power at play

Evidence from Australia and USA show that power is central to the vice. First, the perpetrators are able to create environments conducive to private contact with the student. Second, the latter hold the perpetrators in high esteem because of their age and positions.

Third, the perpetrators use the institutional system to protect themselves. Fourth, the students’ vulnerability is exacerbated by their dependence on the perpetrators for academic success and career prospects. Complying with the amorous demands, thus, looks like a small price to pay for a greater good!

The pattern is similar in African countries going by findings from Ghana, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, which show that 20-30 per cent of women students are affected.

The typical scenario is that of faculty members rewarding the “compliant” students by disclosing examination questions in advance to give them advantage in preparing, while resistant ones are awarded poor grades in a scheme characterised by absolute subjective power.

The net result is that the credibility of female students graduating from universities gets questioned from a belief that all may have benefitted from the practice.

Career prospects

The cases occurred within the university, including the perpetrators’ private residences. Again, few cases were reported from fear that this would antagonise the lecturers and jeopardise the educational and career prospects of the victims.

The students also doubted that the authorities would take decisive action on complaints filed.

In Kenya, a 2019 survey of university students by ActionAid, established that 66 per cent of the cases were perpetrated by faculty, followed by service staff (24 per cent) and management cadres (23 per cent).

The lecturers rewarded compliant students with good grades while withholding the marks of reluctant ones to coerce them to oblige or else suffer from delayed graduation.

Thirty-eight per cent of female students did not believe the university would act on their complaints or protect them.

This led to reluctance to testify when called upon, hence freedom for the accused and an entrenched culture of impunity.

Credible data needed

All the studies depict loud silence about the subject. One wonders why local universities have not carried out comprehensive studies on this subject to generate credible data on its magnitude and manifestations as a foundation for action, either as an institutional initiative or academic study by postgraduate students.

While the issue primarily revolves around lecturers harassing their students, anecdotal evidence shows that students also sexually harass their lecturers by presenting themselves as readily available for grades, lucre or just fun.

The behaviour is reportedly common from students struggling academically but aware of their alternative endowments. In some cases, students tape their private conversations with the lecturers, thanks to mobile phone technology, and then coerce the latter to award the marks they dictate or else be reported to the administration.

Contrary to popular belief that the vice is exclusively about male lecturers harassing female students, studies in Australia and the USA show that even female faculty are sexually harassed by their male students.

This is attributed to the staffers’ desperation for positive student feedback that would earn them career-related rewards such as promotion.

Ghanaian cases

A 2011 study on Ghanaian universities also reveals cases of male students being sexually harassed by female dons.

The Kenyan one chronicles cases of female lecturers making explicit sexual advances to their male students, failing non-compliant ones in exams and threatening others with discontinuation.

A rapid survey confirms existence of anti-sexual harassment policies in local universities. But policies are only meaningful if implemented.

If indeed students hardly report being harassed, it becomes difficult to know the exact magnitude of the problem and unfair to blame university administration for inaction.

Notwithstanding this, it is morally reprehensible and an abuse of power for university staff to extort sex from students.
Kenya’s Sexual Offences Act criminalises this behaviour and pegs on it a jail term or a fine, or both.

To date, hardly any case from universities has been prosecuted. Perhaps it is time this was done to test the law and demonstrate the seriousness of the matter.

Dr Miruka is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected])